At Pentecost, why do we ask the Holy Spirit to “kindle in us the fire” of God’s love? Because the alternative is to die of cancer—spiritual death from spiritual cancer.
God is likened to fire in the Bible and the Liturgy countless times (Hebrews 12:29, for example). Additionally, whenever He and His Word are called “light” (John 8:12 and Psalm 119:105, for example), we can recall that all light emanates from burning. Stars, forest fires, and light bulbs burn until they run out of fuel. Our own bodies are kept alive by a kind of burning: cellular metabolism produces water, carbon dioxide, and energy, just like a campfire. All creatures will one day burn out and grow cold, but the image of God as fire and light signifies life inextinguishable, burning with fuel inexhaustible—ipsum esse, being itself. What is this burning in God’s nature? It is love.
From all eternity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit pour themselves out one to the other in love, like a great, cosmic dance of flame. This eternal, invisible dance became visible and tangible when Jesus Christ poured out His life-blood on the Cross out of passionate, burning love for us and for His Father. This burning, self-giving love is the highest order of reality, and if we are ever going to survive—and even thrive—in that love when we die and go to meet it, we must open ourselves up to it now. Then we can be like the bush that is burning yet not consumed, alive and growing in the fire (Exodus 3:1-6). How do we open ourselves up to this love? By embracing sacrifice and surrendering our sins and self-will to God’s cleansing fire. The fire of God’s love is kindled with the wood of the Cross.
We must also help to spread this spiritual fire by loving others the way that Jesus has loved us (John 13:34). In the sharing of the fire-light at the Easter Vigil Mass, we witness the “law of the gift” articulated by Pope St. John Paul II: “your being increases in the measure that you give it away” (Bishop Robert Barron’s paraphrase). The fire-light of Jesus, lit in the world in the Incarnation, appears to be extinguished when it is given over to the forces of evil, only to burst forth anew in the Resurrection. (The evidence of the Shroud of Turin indicates a blindingly bright light at the moment of the Resurrection—a new Big Bang for the new creation that is Redemption, driven by the inexhaustible fuel of Christ’s love.) Then, as the Paschal candle illustrates, Christ gives that new life away to every believer. We in turn give away the fire to our neighbors, yet the fire only grows, never diminishing. Through the generosity of God, and our generosity in turn, the many are gathered into the one blaze of His love: “As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1127).
The paradox of this divine fire-life is that we must die (to self) to receive it. God has written this law into our bodies: every second, approximately one million cells give their lives to maintain our health (Douglas Green, Cell Death). In the most common method of cell death, apoptosis, cells deliberately package themselves to be eaten by other cells—a microscopic reflection of the Eucharist. The individual cells in our bodies live a sacrificial life: they do not live for themselves but for the good of the whole body. Each of us, as cells in the Body of Christ, must likewise live for the good of others—for the Body.
What if one cell refuses to work for the good of the body but rather begins to live only for itself? What if it resists giving up its life in cell death and then begins to spread its selfish mode of existence? Such is precisely the origin of cancer. The term “cancer” encompasses a staggeringly diverse group of illnesses, but they all share a common mechanism of origin: “the uncontrolled growth of a single cell…. In a normal cell, powerful genetic circuits regulate cell division and cell death. In a cancer cell, these circuits have been broken [through genetic mutations], unleashing a cell that cannot stop growing” (Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer).
As a healthy cell that lives and dies for the good of the body is an image for selfless, sacrificial love, reflecting the fire-love of the Blessed Trinity, so a cancer cell is an image for self-centered, self-“love,” echoing the “Non serviam!” of the satanic revolt against God (though, of course, people with biological cancer are no more sinful than the rest of us). This spiritual cancer first entered humanity in the Fall: Adam and Eve chose self over obedience, bringing about the cancerous mutation in our nature known as original sin. Jesus’s self-sacrificial obedience lit the purifying fire of divine life in humanity; it now remains for each of us to hand ourselves over in faith and trust to our Divine Physician and let Him “kindle in us the fire” of His healing love.
If one cancer cell is not recognized and destroyed in time by the body, it can multiply and spread with astonishing success, coopting the body’s systems for its own deranged purposes. On the spiritual level as well, a self-centered mode of existence, if not checked in its beginnings by repentance, can become quite organized and pervasive. In a demonic parody of the fire-love of the Blessed Trinity, the parasitic cancer of selfishness spreads and grows as well. This phenomenon explains the “success” of today’s culture of death.
At the heart of marriage lies the marital act with its fiery passion and life-giving potential. As the power of cell division must be “tightly regulated” for the health and safety of the body (Mukherjee), so the power of the marital act must be tightly regulated by God’s plan for sexuality and marriage for the health and safety of individuals and society. Any departure from that plan will inevitably lead to cancerous damage. The family is meant to be the cell of society, but for the body of society to be healthy, the family-cell must have self-giving love at its heart: “my life for yours” (Carrie Gress, The Marian Option). When couples reach for contraception in an attempt to avoid the “burden” of another child or the patient self-restraint involved in natural family planning, they allow self-centeredness into the heart of marriage. This mutation in God’s plan allows the cancer of selfishness to grow and metastasize into all of the other manifestations of the culture of death: “your life for mine” (Gress). When God’s plan for marriage and sexuality is lived out wholeheartedly, the fire-love of the Blessed Trinity spreads and glows more brightly on the earth, beckoning the cold and lonely to its warmth.
In the great feast of Pentecost, and indeed every day, let us beg the Lord to send forth His Spirit and “renew the face of the earth” with His fire-love that cleanses the world of spiritual cancer. As Jesus promised, “whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
image: Pentecost Mosaic in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis via Teresa Otto / Shutterstock.com